TV Review – Rome, Rise and Fall of an Empire

This is a series that I have been TIVOing for a while.  It is one of my favorites, because unlike a lot of them, they actually explore the entire period of the empire, from start to end, without the usual tactic of having 10 episodes on Augustus and 1 on the next five hundred years or so.

The format is standard, you have a narrator giving the contexts, and a series of historians giving ‘color commentary’ to add perspective.  They also add some cut scenes of battles and of the main figures. Like most of these, they suffer somewhat from being done with a few dozen players instead of thousands. Some of the fight scenes are too  ‘Hollywood” with flips and judo throws rather than just hacking the other down in formation.

To give them credit, the costumes of the soldiers on both sides are pretty accurate. I think the Roman soldiers are a set of actual reinactors of the XX Legion, since you see their standards.  The Barbarians are done well too, not just hulks in bearskins.

The view of the series is on Rome versus the surrounding barbarians. Internal Roman politics is gone over more lightly, again in a difference from most histories who follow the Roman Senatorial historians and obsess over which senator is getting arrested instead of wondering if the borders will collapse.

This is may not be a full list of episodes, but I remember these

  • Marius versus the Cimbri and Teutones
  • Julius Caesar versus the Gauls
  • Augustus and Teutoberger Wald
  • Claudius’ Invasion of England
  • Marcus Aurelius and the Marcomanni
  • Trajan and the Dacian Wars
  • Decius and the Goths
  • Aurelian restores the Empire
  • Constantine
  • Stilicho and Alaric the Goth
  • Ricimer and Majorian
  • Odoacer and the End of Empire

The episode I saw last night was Aurelian. He came to power when the Empire was restricted to just its central portion. France and Spain were in the “Gallic Empire” and Zenobia of Palmyra had taken most of the east, including Egypt, off.  At the start of his reign, barbarians were in Italy and it wouldn’t have taken much to end it all.  This was around 260 AD. If the Empire had fallen, its questionable that Christianity would have become a world spanning ‘one church’. It needed the prestige of the Empire to cement that idea for the centuries ahead.

Instead, Aurelian drove off the barbarians, and crushed Palmyra and the Gallic Empire and put the Empire back on its feet.  After displaying Zenobia, the queen, and the Gallic Emperor in a triumph, he pensioned them off in Italy instead of executing them.  I think that was a wise and decent decision, because it was more from lack of leadership from Rome that the provinces broke away rather than from ambition.

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